Friday, March 25, 2011

Enough is Enough!

"Possibility of some accumulating snow this weekend."
Normally I would react to words like these the way any 5 year old does, even though I'm far from being that young anymore: with great joy and anticipation. I am an avid skier, and one of those people that just can't get enough snow. I always find it magical the way snow transforms any landscape into something so clean and pure (at least for a short while, here in the city). But it's almost April in Baltimore people! I have already had a run or two outside, in shorts and short sleeve shirts, and have reluctantly given up any dreams of doing just a few more runs in a neighborhood ski resort. Enough is enough! Daffodils need to come up unhindered, tulips don't need to fight through the the white stuff to display their rainbow colors, and forsythia won't be happy to have its sunny flowers weighted down by a blanket of white.

Whether it happens or not, the BSO is playing some sunny pieces on the first half of its concerts this weekend. Another of our favorite guest conductors, Yan Pascal Tortelier, is leading us in the elegant Valses Nobles and Sentimentales by Ravel as well as Grieg's melodious and very romantic Piano Concerto with my fellow alumnus from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Orion Weiss as a soloist. The second half displays the orchestra in Lutoslawski's powerful and very unique-sounding Concerto for Orchestra. Don't miss it!

-Ivan Stefanovic

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Swiss Mr. Bean

"To vibrate this note would be inappropriate," says the conductor, managing to very effectively convey to the orchestra musicians his desire to have us do away with most of our ingrained Romantic traditions when playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, written before the title "Romantic music" was even uttered, and in an era when the technique of vibrato was used very sparingly.

"Violas can be more expressive, I know that, because I am married to a violist," he says, making a viola joke on the spot.

"Count like you count your money," he quips, displaying his true Swiss roots (with a German accent and an Italian name) after some wind players miscounted the measure he wanted to restart with.

These are quotes from the BSO's Tuesday morning rehearsal with one of our most beloved guest conductors, the immensely funny and likable Mario Venzago. They may portray an almost childish personality, full of humor and joy of life, but may also sound a bit insincere. However, while Mario has the entertainment capability of a stand-up comic (and one with a very charming accent), he is anything but insincere. He is a very serious musician, one that dives very deep into every note, phrase and movement of every piece he rehearses and performs, and emerges with a net-full of the richest musical expression that is backed up by years of exploring music at the highest level. And he manages to do it all with an unending smile and flair that always puts the orchestra in the best of moods. When someone is that much into music, one can't help but get involved with them, and go to great lengths to please them, even if one doesn't necessarily agree with every musical idea.

"This sounds like acne," he says of some unwanted accents in a lyrical phrase that the cello section just played.

"You now go to sleep, true artists need sleep," he tells the winds as he is about to spend time rehearsing some bumpy passages in the strings.

"Trumpets are 40, no, 42% too loud, he specifies, again drawing on the background of his native country, where I remember the Alpine trains having a timetable that looked just like that (13:34, 13:59, 14:07), and actually managed to adhere to it!

"If you play it like this, I have to go to court," he mocks, with gratitude, when the brass manages a sound he asked for that is nowadays rarely produced in Beethoven's Fifth outside of the so-called Performance Practice ensembles, the ones that include as much of the techniques from the composers' era as possible.

I have known Mario since I was 14, as a young violinist representing my native country of Yugoslavia on two successive European Youth Orchestra Summer Tours, which were both based in Switzerland, and during which he was our Assistant Conductor. He hasn't changed one bit, and that's a good thing.

Come and enjoy his musical artistry in concert this week, with Schubert's Fifth and Berg's beautiful Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride as a soloist.

P.S. Oh, and if you don't know who Mr. Bean (a.k.a. actor Rowan Atkinson) is, check him out as he conducts a band playing holiday carols.

-Ivan Stefanovic

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Celestial Events

I happened upon a bit of news that the International Space Station (ISS) was, once again, visible in the evening sky over Baltimore. I have seen it many times, and it is an amazing sight, to look up at the night and see an object brighter than any other one can see (other than the Moon), moving as fast as a plane, directly overhead. If no one told you that it wasn't a plane, you'd immediately know it, it's that different. And then think of the several men and women from different countries up there, looking down through their little porthole-like windows, sleeping upright, or drifting outside of the Station, connected by a tether, it makes it that much more magical. Last night was even more special, since the Space Shuttle Discovery was visible on the same trajectory just before the passage of the ISS, on its way to a last-ever landing on Earth about noon today (photo below copyright NASA).

For those of you interested in finding out about the fly overs (and if you have kids, you should be-they find these really special, as my three boys do), read the weather blog by Frank Roylance in the Baltimore Sun, or find his blog on the Web (right after you read mine of course (: ).

Now you're asking yourselves what this has to do with music or the BSO. Well, absolutely nothing. But it sure is nice to look up at the sky every once in a while, with a purpose or without. We spend too much time looking down at our important (we think) every day happenings, forgetting that we're part of something much larger.

Check out our Pops concerts this week on Thursday (Strathmore), Friday and Saturday (Meyerhoff) at 8pm and Sunday (Meyerhoff) at 3pm. They're entitled a Celtic Celebration: Music of the Emerald Isle, conducted by the ever-entertaining Jack Everly, and are sure to send you dancing on your way home (or at least up to the garage). You might even want to look at the night sky while you're at it.

-Ivan Stefanovic